NFC East: Ben Roethlisberger
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
Four players tied for the top spot in Sando’s rankings, using a 1 for the best at the position and a 5 for the worst. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees shared the top spot. Andrew Luck was fifth.
Romo checked in after Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger and tied with Russell Wilson and Eli Manning in the second tier.
Here’s what Sando wrote and the insiders had to say about Romo:
T-8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (2.23 average rating)
A few evaluators questioned whether Romo had the mind-set to play at the highest level consistently. It's a familiar refrain in league circles, a feeling that Romo is an undisciplined QB playing for an undisciplined organization with a poorly constructed roster.
"People want to knock him," one GM responded, "but the guy has talent and is one of the top 10 starters in the league."
Romo is 34 years old and coming off back surgery, but he still could be in line for a "monster" season, one evaluator said. "But I absolutely believe they will not win big with him. As soon as he decides it's a clutch moment, his brain goes elsewhere. He loses focus and tries to create something."
What’s funny is that the GM and evaluator have the same thoughts of those who love Romo or loathe Romo who are not on the inside. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went so far as to call Romo “underrated” in his yearly rankings, which drew the ire of some.
The “clutch” talk has been a big thing around Romo since the bobbled snap in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. That talk is always followed up with Romo having the best fourth-quarter passer rating in NFL history (102.4) and his 20 come-from-behind wins.
Those numbers aren’t hollow, although with one playoff win to his credit that’s what his detractors will say.
That’s why this debate is a good one. Both sides can declare victory with their points. If Romo were to ever win a Super Bowl -- or perhaps just get to one -- then the perception would change entirely.
But Weeden also realizes he can't take everything from Romo and implement it into his own game. They play the same position but they play it differently.
"He's done it for so long that he's found what works for him, whether it's footwork or types of throws or reads or whatever it may be," Weeden said. "He's got a feel for what he's good at. I just pick and choose what I think may work for me. One thing about me, I'm going to be an aggressive thrower. I'm going to stretch the field vertically and I'm going to throw the ball aggressively. Sometimes I may get myself in trouble but I think being smart aggressive vs. being dumb aggressive is two different things.
"I've watched every game of his last year and I think what he does in the pocket, moving around the pocket, those things you really can't teach them, so I'm not sitting back there trying to do those spin moves and crazy stuff he does. But he's one of the best. Him and Ben Roethlisberger are the best I've ever seen at extending plays. That's not really my skill set. That's something I'm not going to take from him."
Weeden is getting to work with the first team during the organized team activities because Romo is recovering from back surgery and Kyle Orton is absent. He views this as an audition to show the coaches he can be the backup if needed.
Orton's status remains unsolved, but the club anticipates he will take part in the June 17-19 mandatory minicamp.
"That was one of things I talked to coach Garrett about when I came in before I signed," Weeden said. "I said, ‘I want an opportunity to come in and compete and get some reps and show that I can play.' He assured me that I was going to. So coming in Day 1, I think it's kind of what I expected. I think it's my job now to take advantage of each rep, especially going with the ones. I'm out there with guys who are perennial Pro Bowlers like Jason Witten and Dez (Bryant) and all these guys who are just the best at what they do. It's made it nice. It's been a good transition. Tony has been helping me a lot. It's been good for the first four days."
NFL's top five cap hits
Eli Manning, New York Giants, $20,400,000
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh, $18,895,000
Jay Cutler, Chicago, $18,500,000
Drew Brees, New Orleans, $18,400,000
Sam Bradford, St. Louis, $17,610,000
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: St. Louis is paying the price for a since-changed system when it comes to rookie contracts -- and the Redskins clearly have benefited. There’s little chance anyone would think Bradford is worth as much as his 2014 cap number. Manning has regressed the past two seasons, for whatever reason, and needed ankle surgery this offseason. Roethlisberger is excellent and Brees remains a top-five quarterback. But Cutler is an example of a guy who is being paid because of the position he plays. He's been a good quarterback, but it's tough to say he's been great. He's definitely not a top-five guy. The Redskins have Griffin at a lower cost the next two seasons and then, if he plays as they hope, his number will skyrocket.
NFL's top five cap hits
Mike Wallace, Miami, $17,250,000
Andre Johnson, Houston, $15,644,583
Percy Harvin, Seattle, $13,400,000
Calvin Johnson, Detroit, $13,058,000
Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay, $12,432,000
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: The top two at this position certainly didn't outperform Garcon, who led the NFL with 113 catches. Garcon only caught five touchdown passes, but that matches what Wallace and Andre Johnson did as well. Harvin played just 19 snaps all season. Calvin Johnson caught 84 passes, but 12 went for touchdowns and he averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Jackson caught 78 passes, seven for scores, and averaged 15.7 yards per catch. The Redskins received good value from their top earner at this spot. They have even more invested here now after adding DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. The former will be a major bargain compared to the rest of this group if he puts up numbers similar to last year (82 catches, nine touchdowns, 1,332 yards. But keep in mind in his first five years Jackson averaged 54.8 catches, 4.6 touchdowns and 957 yards per season).
NFL's top five cap hits
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, $14,400,000
LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia, $9,700,000
Ray Rice, Baltimore, $8,750,000
Arian Foster, Houston, $8,300,000
Matt Forte, Chicago, $7,900,000
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: Peterson and McCoy are two of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL and are difference-makers. But what's also clear is why teams don't like to shell out huge money for running backs. Washington’s Alfred Morris, who is 93rd on the list of running backs when it comes to 2014 cap figures ($600,775), was as productive running the ball as Peterson. Morris ran for 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards a carry. Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Rice ran for 660 yards in 15 games, averaging 3.1 yards on 214 carries. Foster only played in eight games. Forte is an excellent all-around back and was productive. But the Redskins are fortunate they won’t have to shell out more money here for two more years.
NFL's top five cap hits
LT Joe Thomas, Cleveland, $12,300,000
LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets, $11,698,666
LT Russell Okung, Seattle, $11,240,000
G Jahri Evans, New Orleans, $11,000,000
LT Trent Williams, Washington, $10,980,393
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: Williams is one of the games best tackles so for him to be in this group makes sense. He could be more consistent and avoid the clunker game, but overall Williams has proven himself and earned two Pro Bowl trips. I'd have a hard time paying a guard as much as Evans, but at least he's an elite player with five consecutive All-Pro nods (in addition to five straight Pro Bowl berths). Okung, drafted one spot after Williams in 2010, has missed 19 games in his career and made one Pro Bowl team. Williams has played in every game the past two seasons. Because of his athleticism, the Redskins can use him differently than other teams use their tackles.
NFL's top five cap hits
Jason Witten, Dallas, $8,412,000
Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville, $8,250,000
Greg Olsen, Carolina, $7,800,000
Antonio Gates, San Diego, $7,362,500
Vernon Davis, San Francisco, $7,342,916
Redskins top cap hit
Summing it up: Yet another position where the Redskins have a bargain for a few more seasons. This isn’t about how Paulsen stacks up, but really about Jordan Reed. If he can stay healthy, this will be the company he keeps statistically. I love watching Davis because of the matchup headaches he causes based on his athleticism. It’s the same with Reed. Marcedes Lewis has had a nice eight-year career and is an excellent blocker, but No. 2 on this list? He has 25 career touchdown catches, but 10 came in one season. The others are proven pass threats. Of course, this list will change once Jimmy Graham's situation is settled with New Orleans.
With ESPN Insider Chris Mortenson reporting Sanchez is expected to sign with the Eagles, it brings together two sides filling a major need.
Kelly was Oregon's offensive coordinator when Sanchez played at Southern Cal.
We will now get to see if he can revitalize Sanchez.
Things started so well for Sanchez with the Jets. He helped New York and Rex Ryan to two straight AFC Championship Games, losing to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, but he never made the next step in his career.
His best statistical year came in 2011, when he threw for 3,474 yards with 26 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, but the Jets lost their final three games and that was the end of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Tony Sparano did not help Sanchez in 2012. A shoulder injury kept Sanchez out last year.
Provided the shoulder checks out, Sanchez will become the backup to Foles.
Kelly's first order of business is lifting Sanchez's accuracy. He is a 55.1 percent passer for his career. The best he has had in his career is 56.7 percent. In today's NFL with the rules the way they are, quarterbacks must complete about 65 percent to be effective.
With the Eagles, Sanchez would have better tools around him, especially on the offensive line. He could have DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, at least for a minute. He would have Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to go with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz at tight end. And of course he would have LeSean McCoy.
He would also have Kelly, who has won with different kinds of quarterbacks along his stops at New Hampshire, Oregon and last year with the Eagles.
The Eagles are not the ground-and-pound of the Jets in Sanchez's first two years, but Kelly will run the ball to control the game and his quarterback.
Sanchez would be going to a perfect spot without the pressure to be the Sanch-ise. All he would need to be is a backup, not a savior.
“I care nothing about that,” Vick said. “I care nothing about people that dislike me. I care nothing about people who still have ill feelings about me. What matters most to me is the people I do know care about me. That’s something you can never take away from me.”
According to the poll, 53 percent of respondents named Vick as an NFL player they disliked. San Diego linebacker Manti Te’o was second at 48 percent, followed by Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It has been four years since Vick was released from federal prison, where he served 18 months for charges resulting from a dogfighting ring. Vick was reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in 2009 and signed with the Eagles that August.
He has not been in any kind of trouble since then. He has gotten a few endorsement deals. Still, his image clearly remains tarnished.
“I don’t feed into all that,” Vick said. “People are entitled to their own opinions, and I respect it. Just let me do what I do, let me be me. As long as I have my freedom, my health and my family, nothing else matters.”
No. 7 -- Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys QB
No player in the NFC East stirs more emotion than Romo. Many will consider this ranking too high, shouting things like, "One playoff win!" and "I'm surprised his ranking didn't get intercepted!" etc. Others will consider this ranking too low, citing Romo's excellent and consistent regular-season numbers and a justifiable belief that the negatives too strongly outweigh the positives in too many people's minds. Me, I left him right here where he was last year, at No. 7 on the list of best players in the NFC East. I guess you can sit here and say he should be better. And throwing three interceptions in the division title game against Washington in Week 17 last year certainly didn't help his case. But more than two-thirds of the teams in the league would take Romo over their current quarterback situation, and in the end I think he's a bit of an underappreciated player.
He's gone over 4,000 yards passing in three of the past four seasons, the only exception being the 2010 season in which he missed 10 games due to injury. He has a career completion percentage of 64.7 and hasn't been under 63 in a season since 2008. He has a 95.6 career passer rating, which is higher than those of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, to name a few. And for all of the talk about interceptions, last year's 19 was an anomaly, tying a career high. He's only thrown more than 14 in a season twice in his career.
The issue, of course, is the winning, or lack thereof. The three quarterbacks named in the previous paragraph have a combined five Super Bowl titles. Romo has none, as everyone knows. If that were not the case, I believe he'd be more freely talked about among the great quarterbacks of his era, since the numbers put him there on their own. Romo's own role in the Cowboys' lack of Super Bowl success during his time as their starting quarterback is often exaggerated, but he has surely played one. Until he and they overcome that problem, he has to rank a notch below that elite level.
The rest of the rankings:
8. Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins
9. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants
10. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
11. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
12. Sean Lee, LB, Cowboys
13. Trent Williams, OT, Redskins
14. Evan Mathis, OG, Eagles
15. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
16. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
17. Anthony Spencer, DE, Cowboys
18. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
19. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
20. Jason Hatcher, DL, Cowboys
“It’s rare when I evaluate rookies so highly. I believe in performance over time. But in the case of Robert Griffin III, his individual play and his overall impact was so extraordinary, that he comes in at No. 13 on my quarterback big board.
“It began the opening game of the season against the Saints. You know what I loved about this play? RG III’s total awareness of what happened. Listen to him on the sideline. Let’s break the play down and explain what RG III was talking about. Here’s the play fake, and here’s the blitzing safety. There’s Niles Paul, the hot receiver. And there’s the linebacker RG III was talking about covering Paul. At that point, the defense won. That’s a remarkable reaction for a quarterback on his 12th play.Griffin
“RG III and the Redskins played offense differently than we had seen in the NFL. Their foundation was the option. RG III led all quarterbacks in rushing with over 800 yards. Often, it was the option. Other times, it was just pure speed. The key of course was the effectiveness of the passing game off the option. Look at the impact of the read-option on the safety. His eyes are focused in the backfield, with no awareness of Aldrick Robinson on the deep post right in front of him.
“As spectacular as RG III can be with his legs, it’s his passing ability that gives him a chance to be a very special player. That’s why I have him ranked 13th after just one season. The question is how will the Redskins handle RG III after his major knee injury? Will we see as much read-option? Or will Mike and Kyle Shanahan incorporate more NFL drop-back passing concepts? It will be a delicate balancing act, and I’m very intrigued to see it.”
So, what's interesting to me about this is that the reaction of Redskins fans to the ranking was that it was too low, while Jaws seems to be defending how high a ranking it was for a quarterback coming off his first year. The thing is, through process of elimination, we can determine that Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick all rank in the top 12, ahead of Griffin. (Here's the list through 15, and Jay Cutler was No. 14.) So while it might be rare for Jaws to rank a guy this high after his first year, he appears to have ranked three other guys in the same situation even higher. (And yes, I understand that Kaepernick was not a rookie last season, but he wasn't a starter in 2011, or even in the first part of 2012 for that matter.)
Personally, I'd definitely rank Griffin ahead of Kaepernick and Houston's Matt Schaub, who's apparently also in that top 12 (along with, in some order, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco). And I think you could certainly argue him over Luck or Wilson, though it's no slam-dunk. But then again, you could argue Tony Romo over any of those guys, and Jaws has him 15th. This is one man's opinion, folks, and not only is it one to which he has the right, it's one at which he's arrived after extensive film study and consideration of all of these guys. Easy for fans to pick apart, but he's watching all of them, not just his favorites.
It's also important to note that Griffin is, currently, an injured player. He did not participate in the organized activities of the offseason, and might not be ready for training camp or the start of the season as he continues to recover from the major reconstructive knee surgery he had in January. As upbeat as everyone is about the likelihood of Griffin's recovery, he hasn't yet completed it, and there's no way to know when or if he'll ever be back to full strength. Downgrading him because of the injury is legitimate, as is downgrading him because of the possibility that his playing style and/or the effects of two reconstructions of the same knee in a three-year stretch could make him less effective going forward.
It's tempting to rank Griffin highly because of the greatness we glimpsed in his first season. But in the end, it might be wise to rank him more cautiously until we see it again, and for a longer period of time.
Oh, and a h/t to Twitter follower Ryan Pence (@pencerm) for the "RG XIII" in the headline. He thought of that first.
It's the second game in a row in which Carr has come up with a significant turnover. His second-quarter interception of Andy Dalton in Week 14 set up a touchdown drive that tied the game at 10-10 at a point when the Cowboys had not done anything offensively. Carr has been inconsistent in his first season in Dallas after signing a $51 million free-agent contract in the offseason to help stabilize the secondary. He appears to be playing better during this critical time at which the Cowboys have won five of six games to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East.
Carr is the first Cowboys player to win an NFC Defensive or Offensive Player of the Week award this season. Punt returner Dwayne Harris was NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 10, and Bailey won that award a week later.
Feeling good: The Steelers don't scare you the way they used to. They've lost three of their past four games, including last week's clunker against San Diego, and while Ben Roethlisberger is back from injury and presumably getting healthier by the week, the Steelers have issues at running back and on defense, where cornerback Ike Taylor is injured and won't play. If Philip Rivers and Danario Alexander were able to light up the Pittsburgh secondary last Sunday, there's no reason to think that Tony Romo and Dez Bryant can't do the same -- assuming Bryant can catch with that broken left index finger.
Cause for concern: The Cowboys' defense is in tatters. It appears cornerback Morris Claiborne will miss the game due to his concussion. And while they can fill in with Mike Jenkins and the pleasantly surprising Sterling Moore, it just eats away further at their depth on that side of the ball. They're already playing without their two starting inside linebackers, a starting safety and two starting defensive linemen. Claiborne has been improving as the season's gone along, and without him covering receivers on the back end it'll be very important for the Cowboys' pass rush to get to Roethlisberger and sack him.
Can the New York Giants' pass rush perk up and help a Big Blue defense that held the Falcons offense scoreless during the playoffs last season repeat that performance Sunday in Atlanta?
Can the two men the Dallas Cowboys brought in to be shutdown cornerbacks keep the Steelers receivers covered while Ben Roethlisberger scrambles to keep plays alive?
Can the Washington Redskins scheme, adjust and work around their defensive personnel shortages for another week, keeping Trent Richardson in check and daring Brandon Weeden to beat them in Cleveland?
These are the key storylines Sunday as the NFC East race spins into its final weeks. Amend them with different opponents, and they are likely to remain the key storylines in this division the rest of the way. Although the quarterbacks get all the attention in this division and statistically there's not a top-10 defense in the bunch, the team that plays the best defense in these final three games is the one most likely to emerge with the division title.
The NFC East race is a jumble. The defending champion Giants hold a one-game lead, but they have road games the next two weeks in Atlanta and Baltimore and are far from assured of winning out. The Falcons and Ravens are a combined 11-1 at home this season and 65-11 the past five. Sure, New York is a defending Super Bowl champion that has shown it can win anywhere, but there's not a team out there that could safely assume it would go 2-0 in those games. The Giants are going to have to play the way they played in January, not the way they've played for most of the past month and a half, if they're going to keep control of the division. To do that, they need to be more ferocious on defense.
The Giants have 31 sacks -- tied for 12th most in the league. Jason Pierre-Paul leads them with 6.5. Osi Umenyiora has six. Justin Tuck has only three.
The numbers are fine, but they're not Giants numbers. This is a pass rush that took out Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady en route to its second Super Bowl title in five years. Unless someone gets more than one sack a game the rest of the way, they're going to finish the regular season without anyone in double figures. That doesn't compute, and it has as much to do with why the Giants haven't already put away this division as anything.
It's possible that seeing Ryan and the Falcons will rekindle memories of how dominant they were up front 11 months ago, and if that's the case, the Giants could be the team that gets on the defensive run that gives them the division title.
The Cowboys sit one game back of the Giants, tied with the Redskins for second place. Statistically fine for much of the season, the defense has endured a brutal rash of injuries. Both starting inside linebackers, a starting safety, a starting defensive lineman and their nickel cornerback are on injured reserve. This week, star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware (elbow) and starting cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) have already missed practice. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff remains in doubt, and his backup, Josh Brent, is out because of his well-publicized issues. The Cowboys are running short of players on defense, which could take them right out of this picture if it continues.
But they've made it this far in spite of their deficiencies. They've won four of their past five games. Running back DeMarco Murray is back in the fold, red-hot wide receiver Dez Bryant apparently is determined to play in spite of a broken finger, and the offense is humming.
The defense has to hold it together, and the key is in that secondary. Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing well at outside linebacker, and the defensive line is average and going to stay that way. The defense is counting on Claiborne and fellow corner Brandon Carr to shut down receivers, especially in a game such as this Sunday's against Pittsburgh's receivers. If Claiborne can't go, the responsibility falls to Sterling Moore, who has looked good in his short time in Dallas.
Carr and Claiborne have been occasionally brilliant but generally inconsistent in coverage this season. The price the Cowboys paid for Carr in free-agent money and for Claiborne in draft picks says they're big-time talents who need to play that way. If they can shut down opposing receivers the next three weeks, the Cowboys' chances of coming from behind and stealing this division are a lot better.
In Washington, all eyes are on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has a knee injury and may not play Sunday in Cleveland.
But the Redskins aren't really worried about their offense. They can run the ball with Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon can get open down the field for backup Kirk Cousins, and they can score enough points.
Defense has been the Redskins' issue all season. They rank 28th in total defense and 31st against the pass. A secondary that didn't look all that great to begin with is now missing two starting safeties and a starting cornerback. The defense is also missing its best pass-rusher, Brian Orakpo, and starting defensive lineman Adam Carriker. It has been a struggle.
Yet the Redskins, which have managed to win their past four games to move within a game of the Giants, have a real chance. They have looked bad on defense for long stretches during the streak -- the second half against Dallas on Thanksgiving, the first half against Baltimore last week -- but they've managed to hold on. Coordinator Jim Haslett is doing an excellent job of changing up the game plan from week to week and half to half to maximize any advantage he can find. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson can be a disruptive pass-rusher for a half. DeAngelo Hall can be a decent cover corner for a couple of drives.
They mix, match and patch it together, and so far it's not falling apart. The key will be for the Redskins to keep walking that tightrope, and if they can do it for three more games, they absolutely have a chance.
So if you're trying to make sense of this NFC East race as it hits the home stretch, look not to the big-name quarterbacks and receivers but instead to the defenses. If one of these three teams can do something on defense it hasn't been able to do so far, that could make enough of a difference to decide the division.
Fast-forward a year, and the Cowboys sit at 6-6, one game out of a playoff spot with four games left on the schedule. And as Calvin Watkins writes, the key to whether they can cash in this opportunity is once again the defense:
If things don't improve for the defense, the season could end before New Year's Day. Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals are next, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, quite possibly with Ben Roethlisberger back in action. Then comes Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, and finally Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins help close the season.
You could say these are winnable games for the Cowboys. If the offense continues to produce points, like the 38 it did Sunday against the Eagles, you might believe that group can carry a few games late.But you can't believe in a defense that's given up eight touchdown drives to rookie quarterbacks the last two weeks.
I don't think this year's issues on the Cowboys' defense are the same as last year's. This year's defense has been very good for stretches, but has turned leaky in recent weeks. Because of injuries, it is playing without its two starting inside linebackers, one of its starting safeties, its nickel cornerback and two of its starting defensive linemen. Last year's defense was, for the most part, healthy in December. It just stunk.
The question for the Cowboys all season, to me, has been whether they were deep enough to last. There is big-time talent in certain places on the roster, but there is not, throughout the roster, the sort of depth of talent a team needs to make it through a season as a championship contender. I think the people who run and build the team know that, and that they perceive themselves in the middle of a building project set to continue in the coming offseason.
Yet they do stand a real chance, with four games to go, of reaching this year's playoffs. And so in spite of the injuries and any other issues they may be having, it's on coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to find a way to fire up the defense to maximize what it has in pursuit of that chance. The Cowboys may not have enough to handle that remaining schedule. And if they don't, a third straight season without a playoff game can't be a total surprise. But if they can overcome their problems, play big over the final four games and swipe one of those spots... well, that'd be something on which to build, now wouldn't it?
SANDO: Wilson has gotten less attention as he's played better, it seems to me. There was quite a bit of buzz around him heading into the season simply because people following along from afar expected Matt Flynn to win the job. The idea that a head coach would willingly go with a 5-foot-10 rookie third-round draft choice over a $19 million free agent made waves. Wilson didn't play all that well early in the season, however. Part of that was because Pete Carroll pulled back the reins on the offense in an attempt to bring along Wilson slowly. That wasn't really anticipated given how effusive Carroll had been in his praise for Wilson's readiness to perform right now, not just in the future. Meanwhile, RG3 was sensational out of the gates. The Wilson buzz went away. I think that's going to change as Seattle continues to make a playoff push and Wilson continues to become a bigger part of the reason why.
KUHARSKY: Critics who want to say Luck is over-hyped are, in my opinion, off their rocker. You look at his completion percentage, you look at his passer rating. I'll watch him play. He's remarkable for a rookie. Heck, he's remarkable for a third-year guy. He's got characteristics of both Peyton Manning (anticipation, smarts, understanding) and Ben Roethlisberger (ability to extend plays or to stand in and make throws while getting hit) as well as enough speed to be a constant threat to pull it down and run for a first down. I understand RG3 is more explosive. But I'm a pocket passer guy. And if I am choosing a young pocket passer to build a team around, I have no question about who it would be right now. It would be Luck. His team isn't very good, and he's got it positioned as a front-runner for a playoff berth. Don't just look at his stats, look at his play. He's worthy of all the talk/ hype/ praise/ applause/ etc.
GRAZIANO: Nobody got attention like Griffin got it in September, when he was being talked about as an MVP candidate and not just Rookie of the Year. In truth, he's been dazzling, and has handled every situation, in-game and off-field, as well as you could ask a rookie to handle it. But if the bloom is coming off, it's understandable. The Redskins have lost three games in a row, and Griffin's two most recent games are the only ones this year in which his completion percentage has been under 60. I think the problem is more about the group around him than it is about the league figuring him out. The Redskins' offense simply may have reached the limit of what it can do in this particular season, given the injuries to top passing-game playmakers Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis. The plan for Griffin is not to run college-style option stuff his whole career, but at this point the Redskins' offense is reaching a point from which it can't evolve much further until it has its top receiving threats back. In the meantime, Griffin is stuck throwing to secondary receivers who drop too many passes, or scrambling so much that it puts his health at risk. We may have seen the best of Griffin for 2012, but things are likely to get better in 2013 and beyond once they improve the team around him.
KUHARSKY: They are all great stories. And heck, Ryan Tannehill and even Brandon Weeden have done some good things, too. If we're not entering an era of quick impact quarterbacking from newcomers, then a lot of teams with high draft picks in the near future are going to be disappointed. I know Cold, Hard, Football Facts took me apart for my praise of Luck. But nowhere in that have I suggested anyone else unworthy of his fair share of respect. Luck's in a unique situation. The Colts were horrific last year, it's a new regime that cut a bunch of people and is eating a lot of dead money. It's a thin roster. It found a purpose in rallying to win for Chuck Pagano after his leukemia diagnosis, and while the Seahawks are a maybe and the Redskins are a no, the Colts are very much a probably for the playoffs. I'm far more interested in that than nitpicking completion percentage for a guy who hardly ever throws a checkdown pass.
GRAZIANO: That's the thing, Paul. Are we analyzing what these guys are right now, as compared to the top QBs in the league? Or are we talking about what they've shown in terms of what they can be? All of these rookies have obvious areas in which they can improve, but at least in the case of the guys who were picked 1 and 2 in the draft, I think we're talking about rare talents with incredibly high ceilings. Whether Griffin has been asked/required to throw downfield as much this year as he'd eventually like to seems immaterial to me, especially with the Redskins not yet ready to contend. He's shown presence in the huddle. He's shown an ability to lead a game-winning drive. He's made good decisions. Much of what he's accomplished is tied to his remarkable all-around athleticism and speed, sure, but he hasn't relied exclusively on that the way, say, a young Michael Vick or Jeff George might have. Griffin's shown a desire and an ability to treat the quarterback position as a craft to be honed, and a willingness to work on the minuscule detail aspects of it. That speaks to where he's headed as much as anything he's done on the field does.
SANDO: I'm with Paul in looking beyond passer rating with Luck in particular. He ranks among the NFL leaders in attempted passes. He's carrying that offense. The Colts are also asking him to make more difficult throws. His passes travel 10.3 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. That leads the league and it's not even close. We're not talking about a team dinking and dunking to protect its rookie passer. Luck is doing so much more than that. I think this is a perfect test case for our Total QBR metric. It's got Luck trailing only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan when it comes to doing the things quarterbacks must do to help their teams win. Those five rushing touchdowns he has aren't showing up in the passer rating stat, to cite just one example. It's why I've listed Luck in the last couple MVP Watch items. The Seahawks did not ask Wilson to do nearly as much early in the season. They've asked him to do more in recent weeks and Wilson has responded. He's improving quickly and ranks among the NFL's top seven in QBR and top five in passer rating since Week 6. Wilson has a real chance to finish this season as the best rookie quarterback in the league.
KUHARSKY: And there we have the crux of the question, I believe -- what would make him the best? Passer rating? QBR? Team success? I love Wilson and his story. I hope he opens doors for others who don't look the part. But Luck looks the part and fits it too, and I'm not downgrading him for it. For what's left of this season, of the rookie quarterbacks, he's the one I'd take, without question. For what's left of their careers, he's the one I'd take, without question. And my picking him is all about what he has, not about anything the other guys don't. And he should be the choice. He was the top pick for a reason.
GRAZIANO: I think you're right, Paul. I spoke with Mike Shanahan last week, and as much as he raves about his guy, he still insists he'd have been thrilled with Luck and that the whole point this year was to get one of the first two picks because you were looking at two transcendent talents. Stats? RG3 is ninth in passer rating, 10th in QBR, sixth in Pro Football Focus' rankings (eighth as a passer and second, behind only Luck, as a running QB). There's not a rating system that doesn't love him, and again, he's done this without the wide receiver they signed to be his top target and big-play guy. If Griffin has to "draft" Luck his whole career and be a close No. 2, I imagine he could do worse. But it appears he's got the stuff he needs to keep it a good debate for years to come. And while it may be a matter of taste, when this year ends, you're going to be able to make the case for Griffin as the top rookie quarterback.
SANDO: Most never expected Wilson to be part of this discussion. Even the Seahawks weren't sure how much his lack of height would limit him. Wilson has demonstrated an ability to find and create throwing lanes. Jared Allen alluded to this before his Minnesota Vikings watched Wilson toss three first-half touchdown passes against them. If the height isn't going to be a negative, then Wilson can absolutely become an elite quarterback. He has the arm and the professional baseball pedigree to prove it. He has big hands, not just for his size, but overall (10 1/4 inches, fourth-biggest at the 2012 combine and bigger than Luck's or Griffin's hands). His work ethic led Carroll to joke about how Wilson decided to take some time off -- maybe three hours, he said -- during the bye week. The results have certainly been positive on the field. From everything I've seen, Wilson will be part of this conversation in the future.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning is 4-for-12 for 60 yards and an interception so far in the game, but the Giants have picked up a total of 87 yards on two Steelers pass interference penalties. They were unable to convert the second into points as Lawrence Tynes' 51-yard field goal attempt in the half's final minute fell short, but the first one -- a 41-yarder on the Giants' first drive of the second quarter -- helped move the Giants into Steelers territory and set up their first touchdown.
That touchdown was a controversial one, due to another Steelers penalty in the end zone. On third-and-goal from the two-yard line, Manning threw an incomplete pass. But on the play, Steelers safety Ryan Clark was called for a personal foul for a blow to the head of Giants receiver Victor Cruz. Replays showed that Clark did not hit Cruz in the head, and the Giants later announced that Cruz was probable to return (as he did) with a rib injury. Andre Brown ran the ball in for the touchdown after the call on Clark.
On the Steelers' ensuing drive, Giants linebacker Michael Boley picked up a Ben Roethlisberger fumble and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. Replays showed that Roethlisberger's arm was moving forward when he lost the ball, indicating that it was actually an incomplete pass. But after reviewing the play, the officials determined that the ball was moving in Roethlisberger's hand before his arm started forward, and therefore the play remained as called.
The Steelers' touchdown came after Manning's interception, so each team has helped the other out. But the Steelers have already rushed for 98 yards on 17 carries, gashing the Giants' defense up the middle with Isaac Redman. And if the Giants don't tighten things up on offense and defense, the second half may not go their way to the extent that the first half did.
Feeling good: The Steelers are a much tougher team at home and are just 1-3 on the road this year. They're also banged-up at running back, with Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer unlikely to play due to injuries and Isaac Redman in line to start. At full strength and at home, the Steelers would be a threat to beat the Giants with a clock-killing, ball-control type of offense. And they'll still try to do that with Ben Roethlisberger and a short passing game that could take some of the starch out of the Giants' pass rush. But being on the road and undermanned will affect the Steelers' ability to run the kind of offensive game plan they want to run, and the Giants should be able to outscore them.
Cause for concern: On defense, the Giants rely on the ability of their front four to pressure and sack the quarterback. Roethlisberger, who's extremely mobile and adept at extending plays inside and outside the pocket, is very difficult to sack. Pittsburgh has allowed just 14 sacks so far this season, and a lot of that success is because of how slippery Roethlisberger can be behind the line while still keeping his eyes downfield to try to make a play. The Giants' defense faces one of its toughest and most unusual tests of the season in Roethlisberger and will have to be judicious in the way they rush the passer.